Some time ago, I was a visitor in an Elders quorum meeting where the quorum president announced the calling of a new quorum secretary.  While making the announcement, the quorum president broke down crying as he talked about the quorum member’s willingness to accept the calling.  I was astonished at the quorum president’s emotionality over this calling, and I imagined he probably loses composure pretty often over things that I might consider routine.  In past years, I might have seen this quorum president’s crying as indicative of a level of sprituality far superior to mine; for example, in the MTC I saw guys crying all over the place, at the strangest times, and I felt strange and lacking in spirituality for my lack of tears.  Over time, though, I’ve come to believe that there are many other factors besides the Spirit that influence our responses to things we see and hear in Church contexts, and I have come to respect the role of chemistry in responses and behaviors that we often consider willed and voluntary.

Recently, a friend referred me to this New York Times blog posting from a guy named Dana Jennings who underwent hormone therapy for prostate cancer.   Jennings’ therapy included the rebalancing of his hormones for elevated levels of estrogen, and the effects of that are interesting:

When I wasn’t devouring a king-size Italian sub or smoldering from a hot flash, it seemed that I was crying.  The tears would usually pour down when I got ambushed by some old tune: “Sweet Baby James” and “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor, “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” by Carly Simon and, yes, “It’s My Party” by Lesley Gore.  Not only was I temporarily menopausal, but it appeared that I was also turning into a teenage girl from the early 1970s.

There were other side effects, too, like headaches and fatigue.  But when I started drinking Diet Coke for the first time in my life, my son Owen couldn’t take it anymore.  He said, “Dad, are you turning into a chick?”

What we’re sometimes not aware of is that fact that both men and women have some amount of both testosterone and estrogen in our blood, but the genders operate with differing ratios of these hormones inside us.  While a higher ratio of testosterone is blamed for all kinds of reckless and stupid male behavior, it also has some other interesting documented effects upon people with elevated levels:

Similarly, as shown in Dana Jennings’ post quoted above, a higher ratio of estrogen has effects on both men and women:

Aging causes both of these hormones to decrease within us, but life events also wreak havoc on our hormone levels: for women, childbirth and menopause can upset the balance of estrogen to the point that it can be severely disruptive to a woman’s mental and emotional well being, and in men, marriage and fatherhood have the effect of decreasing testosterone levels by a significant amount.  Obesity, particularly in the abdominal region, results in an upsetting of men’s hormonal balance as fat cells convert testosterone to estrogen.

I am long past the time in my life when I always confused people’s emotional displays for spiritual experiences.  However, understanding the effects of hormones on our moods and behaviors can give us a fresh look at a lot of questions beyond the relative emotionality of people we meet at Church.  For example, is there any biological merit to Brigham Young’s “menace to society” comment?  Are there some Church and Gospel activities that benefit from the involvement of people who are willing to take risks?  Are there other activities that benefit from the influence of people who are risk-averse?  Territorial?  Generous?  Stingy?

Obviously chemistry isn’t everything, but as I’ve written before, I think it deserves more credit for our experiences, even those of a spiritual nature.   Why, for example, do we hear so often of women having revelatory experiences in childbirth?  Why does the prophetic calling benefit so much from the physical demands of mountains or wilderness, or the physical deprivations of prison?

On a more practical level, awareness of a chemical role in how we respond to spiritual and social stimuli seems to give me a better appreciation for people’s varying responses, including that of the emotional EQ president I mentioned above.  It may be physically impossible for us to really relate on an emotional level to a lot of people we meet at Church, but that should not necessarily prevent us from learning to relate in other ways.